June 19, 2006
Inequity of resource distribution drives immigration
By Mark Patrick Taylor
A glaring omission from the debate on how to deal with illegal
immigration in the U.S., as well as many other affluent nations
around the globe, is that 'we' in the developed world are living
as we do because those on the 'other side of the fence' (in
our case Mexico) live like they do, in relative poverty. Those
living in the developed world are able to consume at current
rates and prices because others produce goods or work in related
industries at a wage rate that would be unacceptable here (if
employed legally or all goods were produced on U.S. soil).
Mark Patrick Taylor is a visiting professor in the
Department of Environmental Toxicology at UCSC.
The only long-term solution to curbing the flow of people across
borders (locally and globally) is to reduce the economic poverty
and resource scarcity while raising the living standards of
poorer nations so that the 'pull factor' is lessened. However,
I suspect the outcome of this would be less palatable to many
as it would probably mean either a slowing of growth in developed
countries or some form of 'leveling out' of living standards.
One effect of 'leveling out' living standards would probably
be price increases as the cost of production rises (wages, workers
insurance, etc.). The upside is that increased living standards
usually equate to greater consumption, the principal driver
of the economy. While increased consumption might appear advantageous
in the short-to-medium term, it could well produce its own problems
as total global resources dwindle.
The global resource issue was discussed by David Ignatius,
a Washington Post journalist in his article "How
to Weather The 'Red Storm'"(1).
Using China as his example, he explained that if growth and
consumption remained constant, by 2031 the per capita income
of China's 1.45 billion people will be equal that of the United
States in 2004. At this point in time it is estimated that China
will be consuming about two-thirds of the world's total current
grain harvest and her oil demand will outstrip the 2004 global
production figures. So much for the current concern regarding
the impending $4-per-gallon fuel costs!
Returning to the more pressing issue of the use of a workforce
that sits outside of the 'legal' economy. This situation produces
an artificially low cost for consumers because the real costs
are born by the workers through lower wages and ultimately living
standards. The cheap labor suppresses prices to a level that
means production in the U.S. is still economically viable. Therefore,
this allows us to live the way we do because others live in
relative poverty. However, we can't have our 'cake and eat it'
-- that is, we can't expect to have an endless supply of cheap,
readily available products at the price we currently pay without
also having the related illegal migrant problem.
The current cross-border inequity that is clearly the main
cause of migration also affects social structures due to the
movement of breadwinners to areas of work (cities) resulting
in depopulation and gender imbalance at their place of origin.
In addition, environmental resources, which form the very basis
of sustenance, often become severely depleted or totally exhausted
as consumption rises with population and economic growth in
areas of growth. For example, fuel wood, soils, water, and native
fauna are often plundered to the point of collapse or nonproductivity
relative to population requirements simply because there are
no alternative resources. Again, this forces people to migrate
either internally in a country or across borders to access employment,
resources, or more basic items such as food and clean water.
There are several well documented examples of catastrophic historical
population collapse due to resource depletion (2,3).
Are there any solutions to the problems? In the short term,
to help society function more effectively and equitably, we
need to reevaluate the distribution, use, and consumption of
resources (economic, environmental, and social opportunities)
so that the 'pull factors' are lessened. This will help reduce
the number and rate of individuals who by necessity or desire
illegally cross transnational borders such as that between Mexico
and the U.S.
In the long term, the solution is less obvious because of
the projected population growth to about 9 billion by 2050 and
the compounding dual effect of increased per capita resource
consumption coupled to total global resource consumption. This
is particularly a concern with respect to water resources not
only in the U.S. but in the more populous areas of the globe
(4) (e.g,. China, India, and the Near and Middle East).
In these areas the remaining groundwater reserves are being
depleted at rates several orders beyond what is sustainable
through natural rainfall recharge rates. Many regions face total
exhaustion or contamination of supplies by 2020 or sooner (5).
The effect of delivering equity to our neighbors (local and
global) will help to reduce long-held social and political tensions
and produce more prosperous and harmonious societies across
all borders. While this will be helpful in the short-to-medium
term, it is quite likely that the intergenerational prospects
will be vastly different due to the impending scarcity of resources
caused by consumption patterns beyond what is sustainable. Nonetheless,
in the short term, we can elicit a more progressive outcome
from the current immigration situation by recognizing and dealing
with the root cause of the problem.
1. Ignatius, D. 2006. How to Weather
The 'Red Storm', Washington Post, April 19th, A17.
2. Saier, M. 2004. The Rise and
Fall of Civilizations. Environmentalist, 24, 195-197.
3. Diamond, J.: 1992, The Rise and Fall of the Third Chimpanzee,
Random House, London, UK.
4. Brown, L. R. 2006. Plan B 2.0: Rescuing a Planet under
Stress and a Civilisation in Trouble. W.W. Norton and Company,
New York, 41-58.
5. Gleick, P. H. 2004. The World's Water 2004-2005. The Biennial
Report on Freshwater Resources, Island Press, New York,
Mark Patrick Taylor is a visiting professor of environmental
toxicology in the Department of Environmental Toxicology at UC
Santa Cruz. His home institution is Macquarie
University in Sydney.
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